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Reading a book with flat-lined cadence is like watching a movie on mute.
Most writers know about the power of rhythm and cadence and beats. But most don’t use that power in every sentence.
A compelling cadence is more than varying sentence lengths. More than using stand alone words.
A compelling cadence carries power on the page. It propels readers through paragraphs and passages and pages.
Dean Koontz is one of the kings of cadence. Here’s what he shared with Brad Crawford in an interview.
I like prose to have hidden rhythms; I like prose to have a music beneath the
surface. It's almost never recognized by the reader in a conscious way, but it is
recognized unconsciously. It's why readers feel the prose flow, why it speaks to
A poet once reviewed one of my books and recognized that entire passages were
written in iambic pentameter. I didn't think anyone would ever notice that.
Different poetic meters affects us emotionally in different ways. It's not anything
anyone's going to see, but it's one of the great techniques to suck a reader right
into the heart of the story.
Read your work out loud, with feeling, and you’ll hear what beats work well, and what beats are missing.
Many rhetorical devices are cadence-driven. Knowing which rhetorical devices boost cadence, pick up pace, make the read imperative, and 747 more cool things, loads your writing toolbox with super-powered tools.
Check out these cadence-driven examples.
It was raining. He held his coat over my head. And then, tucked inside his
cologne-scented jacket, he gave me my first kiss.
Arms wrapped around my waist. Dreamy smile upon my face.
The compelling cadence in Lisa Gardner’s second paragraph was powered by what I call an RD combo. Two rhetorical devices. Parallelism and assonance.
I included the first paragraph so you could see—and hear—the cadence in the lead-in.
The concession stand in the center of the tent had been flattened, and in its
place was a roiling mass of spots and stripes—of haunches, heels, tails,
and claws, all of it roaring, screeching, bellowing, or whinnying. A polar bear
towered above it all, slashing blindly with skillet-sized paws. It made contact
with a llama and knocked it flat—BOOM!
Sara Gruen made that piece strong with alliteration and word play, as well as style and structure and strategy.
1. Gabe’s good looks are real and rugged and raw, and now that I’ve seen both brothers up close, I’d choose Gabe over Zach any day.
RD Combo: Polysyndeton and Alliteration.
2. The silence that spins out lasts forever. It’s the kind of silence that wraps around you like a shroud, the kind that turns the air thick and solid, the kind that makes you want to hear the answer as much as you dread it.
Rhetorical Devices: Amplification (silence) and anaphora
3. My heart races and my skin tingles and my blood pressure explodes like a grenade.
Rhetorical Devices: Empowers visceral responses with polysyndeton and a simile.
4. “Gabe.” I wait until he falls quiet, and then I say, in my best calm-a-spooked-source voice, “She’ll call.”
Dialogue Cue freshened and empowered with a hyphenated-run-on for a cliché twist.
The Blessing of No, Megan Menard, 4-time Immersion-Grad, Three examples:
1. Luke had a machine-gun laugh that fired about every third word.
2. “That makes me feel so much better.” I hoped my sarcasm covered my lie.
3. I picked up a French fry. It was a slender blonde, tall and weepy. I named the fry Tanya and chomped off its head.
All three examples carry interest and power and are perfectly cadenced. The third example uses parallelism. And it reveals a truth in a humor hit that could make us want to laugh or cry.
1. “If. Faith. Can. Come. Live. With Me?” I heaved every word out of my brain and into my mouth. I felt like someone regaining consciousness in an unfamiliar room or house or life.
Christa Allan stylized that dialogue by using a Period. Infused. Sentence. That’s what I named it. Her dialogue cue is amplified, amplified, amplified stellar.
She used an RD combo in the last sentence: polysyndeton and zeugma.
2. That Logan could embrace his inner dork made him all the more likeable. If I’d idled at likeable and not throttled up to loveable, I wouldn’t have risked crashing into the wall. This dinner was the Indy 500 version of returning to the track after a pit stop, except that the finish line was Logan, and there was only one first place.
Ah… Metaphors and power words and hope all themed, propelled by a compelling cadence.
1. Murphy swayed, as if riding the internal waves of his liquor.
Wow. A fresh take on a drunken swagger.
2. Mealtime together was like wading through a swamp: one wrong step could pull you under.
Smart writing. An amplified simile. Perfectly cadenced.
1. “Julia.” The use of her name was forceful and final, and oddly intimate.
Love the way Joan Swan, writing as Sky Jordan, used alliteration and boosted the cadence with the unexpected juxtaposition—oddly intimate.
2. Julia cocked her hip, crossed her arms, and gave Noah a clear, one-wrong-word-and-you’ll-regret-it stare.
Two hits of body language, parallelism, followed by a look amplified with a hyphenated-run-on. Fun and powerful.
1. “This business will stand on its own.” Her voice was as hard as the untilled dirt in the vineyard.
Themed dialogue cue. Amplified simile.
2. The remnants of adrenaline in her system congealed to a sticky wad of anger.
Powerful visceral response. Fresh. Backloaded.
Next example, two paragraphs:
3. “What do you mean, nothing? You’re looking at me like I’m a mouse turd on toast.”
In her hesitation, time bloated, looming and ugly. Something was wrong. His heart tried to hammer its way out of his chest. Bad wrong.
Stimulus: Fresh, accusatory dialogue.
Response: Expanded time. Amplified with negative connotations and a visceral response. Backloaded. Punched up cadence.
You have thousands of ways to capture your story on the page. Crafting a compelling cadence will capture your reader too. And you’ll take your writing from good to stellar.
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Margie Lawson—editor, international presenter—teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners. Margie has presented over ninety full day master classes for writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
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